In Conversation with Kei Miller’s “The White Women and The Language of Bees”
I am here. Here is not the Caribbean. It has been many years since I lived there, in Nassau, through Shirlea, on a street behind Wendy’s where purple bougainvillea grew wild around the trunk of a poinciana in a cul-de-sac where sometimes at the end of a week, friends and I would gather and we’d pull the sofa out onto the road, and bottles of Kalik and cheap red wine and a guitar and empty five gallon Aquapure bottles for drums and have a party under the sky.
Here is not the Caribbean. Here is Boston, or Miami, or San Francisco, or Oakland, or Berkeley, California. (People here do not pull their sofas out onto the street to sing and drum and laugh till all hours under a black sky; not even out in the countryside, where I’m writing this from, in a place that is full of black sky at night, and millions of stars and a full moon so yellow and round it makes you tear up to see it. Okay, maybe in Oakland, by the lake, but that is its own contentious story.) Here is all the places I have tried to live in, but always found myself stranger. Different from the kind of stranger I was in Nassau. There are so many layers of strangerness. And so many pieces of history and hurts and privileges that make up a self. I am a Greek Bahamian, born to an immigrant Greek mother, and a first generation Greek Bahamian father, in Miami, Florida instead of at Nassau’s Princess Margaret Hospital, so that (I tell myself) one day, when my queerness became unwieldy in a small place, I could fly away to a bigger place, where who I loved and how wouldn’t matter. I tell myself this so that I do not have to linger on a piece of privilege I was afforded at an early age. I tell myself this so I do not have to think about the differences between me and other Bahamians — most of them black — who were born in Princess Margaret Hospital, and who do not have an American passport to allow them to pass back and forth across US and international borders so freely.
It is a privilege to say that for years I looked the other way, unwilling to use my passport as a means of escape. And because it is a privilege, unearned — like the colour of my skin — I mostly saw the other story: that as the daughter of a Greek immigrant mother, living on Bahamian soil, and born in a US hospital, I was conflicted, confused. Not Greek anymore because we’d all left; not Bahamian because I was born in America; not American because I grew up in the Bahamas where my grandparents had planted geranium and fig and pomegranate clippings they’d picked in Greece and secreted into suitcases back in the days when no one really looked to see what lay hidden inside tissue and foil stashed between pale yellow shirts and sky blue nightgowns. I felt an intense sense of unbelonging. And a yearning to belong. (I did not know then that I could be many, and not one. I felt split. A fraud. A stranger anywhere.)
By the time I’d returned home from university and had begun to write — poems, tentative pieces of prose — I did not know what it meant to write as a Bahamian. I had finally applied (through my Nassau-born father) for a passport — I had, finally, the credential I had pined for all this time, but still, I did not know any Greek Bahamians who were writers. (We were all still arriving. My grandfather, Papa Charlie, I would learn, had been a writer of letters, a political activist who used the pen for laying claim to Greekness when it was under siege; but most of us hadn’t thought to bring pens or paper with us on the boat trip across the Atlantic; survival was the thing.) I did not think I could write about a life as a Greek girl and call it Bahamian. I believed that all Bahamian writers were black and it was a black story that was Bahamian literature. I was young. I did not yet understand the complexity of the history into which my family had landed, reeling as they were from their own particular history: World War II; the assault on Jews and Muslims in what had once been thriving Greek multicultural towns and cities by Germans who forced and welcomed Greek Christians into complicity; a civil war that tore the country apart from the inside. We were European island people fleeing long years of wars and economic crisis, and now we were European island people here, in a place with a people we knew had suffered, but because we already believed (most of us) in the supremacy of whiteness (it was whiteness that was being forged through holocausts and inquisitions and burnings at stakes in villages across Europe; the supremacy of whiteness being advanced before Columbus was granted ships and crews and supplies for a transatlantic voyage, but you know this), it meant that even suffering could be more and less worthy of care.
“Why birch?” Charles from Nevis asked at a small gathering of writers and would-be writers one night in Nassau. We were sitting on couches in another writer’s living room, and I had shared something I’d written in university, whose shape I do not remember, except that it was full of the names of New England trees and flowers. “Why not gamalame or tamarind? You’re from here, right? Why are you looking north?”
Writing from here was the beginning of an emerging awareness of colonization and what it had wrought. I had been born in Miami because, it was said, medicine was better over there, in a first world country. And I thought writing about birch trees would give me the approval of first world writers. Of course, I wasn’t conscious. I was reaching toward a language that I perceived meant something to the people I thought were the judges of literature. If I turned to look at where I was from, at the mango trees in my backyard, at the bush across the street that filled with brown tea water when it rained, if I turned to look out the car window at the black and brown people I saw walking down Wulff Road at rush hour and on Bay Street on Christmas Eve — then I would have to see where my grandparents had landed, and the whole history — hundreds of years of intersecting histories — that was now mine to wade through, and to understand. Back then, though, it was not histories I saw, but what I thought was our smallness — weeds whose thin brown seeds stuck to your socks and pant legs when you walked through them, sagging roofs of clapboard houses Over-the-Hill, half painted cement block houses on Carmichael Road that stayed unfinished for years. I felt we were behind, not enough, still developing. Which is to say there was something already determined (not by us) that we were meant to develop towards.
To write from here meant to not look away from us, and to examine the sagging roofs at one end of the island, and the mansions over in Lyford Cay on the other end and to inquire into their relationship. To write from here meant to realize that the smallness I felt and perceived was part of a white colonial mentality whose gaze was small, that looked around itself and saw impoverishment and disability instead of resilience and creativity, and refused to take any responsibility for the pain it continued to cause.
To write from here meant I had to look at my whiteness as well as my Greekness. It meant I had to dig down into the nauseous feeling in my gut that welled up every time a black Bahamian man or woman wanted to know where I was from, and if I was enjoying my vacation. I had to come to terms with the reality that in those moments our histories were playing out, every time.
“Where are you from?”
“Me? I’m from right here.”
“Oh, you a white Bahamian?”
“Yes, I’m Bahamian, same as you.”
“Okay, now I hear you speaking, I can see that.”
But always, there was doubt. And a distance. There were other questions (Who are you? What kind of Caribbean woman are you?) born inside that doubt that I would have to answer again and again, posed in silences and then too directly, by strangers and lovers alike. I would be lying if I said it never angered me. It did. I was angry at not being recognized as a Bahamian. Over the years, as I wrote and organized and spoke up and out, I was angry that it seemed not to matter how much I loved us, how much I loved these rocks, and all of our feet and hands pressing upon them, working to make things good and better; that still, in a moment it could all disappear, and a man standing next to me who I thought to be my brother would casually say, “So, how long you been visiting the islands?”
Underneath anger is almost always grief. It was so easy to touch that sore place in me that was soft and swollen with tears, and often my sisters and brothers could touch it in passing without meaning to, without any idea that what was beneath the surface was so much disbelonging and yearning and love and anger and doubt. Once, at a human rights conference in Kingston, with a group of black women activists from Jamaica and Trinidad and Barbados, I was sharing something of my own origins, perhaps a thread of my complicated feelings around them, and they discovered a new word for what I was: “a Nowherian.” It was all I could do to fix my face straight, to hold still the ache in my throat, to laugh along with them instead of wail. How could they know how badly I wanted to belong to them? But there was so much work to do. I had begun to understand that, too. Because beneath the questions, “Who are you?” and “What kind of Caribbean woman are you?” was the more complicated question, “What kind of white Caribbean woman are you?” and then, “Can I trust you?”
So, when I recently read Kei Miller’s essay, “The White Women and the Language of Bees,” what I heard over and over, like a whisper through casuarina trees, was “I thought I could, I wanted to, but I don’t think I can trust you.” What I heard underneath the whisper and in between the letters of words — in the gaps between sound — was something akin to my own grief. Here we are, touching the page to see more of who we are, and more of each other, and what is possible between us. Here we are, against so many odds, still trying to have a conversation, to speak what is important.
So, brother — if I may call you that, even though we have only once met, even though we come from different rocks, I recognize you as the people I come from — was it my trembling hand you saw? Was it my trembling hand you glimpsed through the portal of the page? Is it no longer a secret? I had tried to mask the trembling. To write as if I was not afraid. Is it my hand you saw, or another white woman’s hand, writing toward something like home? Reaching for (you?), then swiftly backing away, then reaching again. Why did she pull away, you ask. What is she afraid of, you want to know. Have I been seen? Or is it another white woman’s book you have read? Of course, I know it does not matter.
If my hand is trembling, that is enough. I do not want to hide. If it is my hand trembling, I will say, it is my hand trembling. You are not wrong, brother. You see well. I am often afraid. But you must be so tired of my fear. You must be tired of the silences, the withholding, the quick papery smiles to cover over what we shall not say. You must be tired of us not seeing past our own heartbreak, of not seeing you, and yours. I can only imagine how grieved that makes you, sitting so close, hand to page, shoulder to shoulder, yet still there are things we — I — can’t say.
You ask, why does she not give herself access to her black character’s voice? Why does she not give him access to his own voice? These are good questions, my brother. You are not wrong. Even though riots broke out online, and the words you wrote were disappeared, even so, I hear you. And I am here, writing words to your questions, writing
to find words
to the silences
I have lived inside, hoping
no one would see
and call me out
into a wider truth.
Yet, without that truth
I cannot write,
cannot love holy
I could say the trembling of a hand, my hand, has to do with “What right do I have?” and “What if I do it all wrong?” and “What if I do it like so many other white writers before me have, and my black brothers and sisters see and are disappointed?” and yes, “Maybe it’s not my story to tell…” and all the other words I use to tell myself I do not have the authority to write Caribbean black lives.
But what it really comes down to is this: the trembling of my hand is related to an inarticulateness. It is related to a practiced voicelessness. Which is also to say that I speak, I write, but there are certain places in sound I have not practiced going. I do not practice saying, for instance, yes, racism lives inside me. And I do not practice saying, you and I, we are children of these same rocks, and I am here to listen to you when you have hard questions. And to respond as best I can.
The trembling of a hand is related to ways we are (I am) not fully conscious. Related to how I often do not trust a black Caribbean man’s voice in my hands; how I do not trust his body to my unconscious. What I mean is, how I do not trust myself to care for your body and your voice and your frailties and your yearnings. How I do not trust myself to hold you in a way that will not harm you. How I do not trust myself.
It does not matter (to the story I am telling you) that Greeks spent 400 years under the occupation of the Turks while the rest of Europe was colonizing the so-called new world. It does not matter that we were not slave owners and did not inherit profits off plantations in Acklins or Cat Island or New Providence, or that we were newcomers to a story that had been unfolding for some time. What matters is that I grew up a white Bahamian woman in a colonized Caribbean country under majority rule, and even though I was a minority of a kind, and even though I was Africanized in my thinking and speaking, in my body’s language and feeling, still I grew up touched by white supremacist consciousness.
I was raised to fear you, but I loved you.
In the middle of that sentence is both yearning and paralysis. In the middle of that sentence is a desire to fall into a deep sleep so that I will not have to talk about what is painful, or do anything about it. Somewhere in the middle of that sentence is the energy to expose and explode the lies that have shaped boundaries I was not meant to cross. I am sixteen, walking with relatives on Charlotte Street in downtown Nassau when I see a man — he is black, he is in his early thirties, he is my Junior Achievement advisor — and not thinking, I run over to him and give him a hug, and a kiss. We are happy to see each other and I greet him the way I greet my Greek elders. Later, in the car, I am chastised for kissing him. No one says you must never kiss a black man, but I know this is what is meant.
You have a good ear for the word.
And I know you are writing not to divide, because that is here already. In the ways silences divide us from ourselves and each other. In the ways white supremacist consciousness finds new and complex channels through which to invade our common reality, because it knows how to adapt and change itself to continue its conquest in old and new worlds. In the ways that white supremacy lives on in the white woman writer’s unconscious, no matter she has been an activist shouting back colonial narratives, so that when she opens the portal to her story there in the unconscious are the words she fears, the images she loathes, the complicated feelings that are hers and not hers, the ugly collective forces of history that have been buried under collective shame and silences and dread, but that she must face or they will take over her stories and distort them and perpetuate the very same thing she is consciously against.
No, I think you are writing to make us all braver; or, maybe you are exhausted from pretending to look away when it is your own self that wants to weep into the phone, or out on the beach looking at the turtles and thinking about how painful it is to be at home with a white woman who is your friend, and who cannot see herself. Or you.
I have been that white woman.
But I want to say this to you now: my hand trembling is also about yearning. A desire to be braver than I am. A longing to be your sister, your ally, your family, because I am from rocks that hurt me sometimes when I am tender-footed, but they are beautiful too, like your rocks, and they have taught me how to laugh at myself when necessary, and to look at myself hard and not turn away, and they have taught me to look for what has been lost, like old ways of talking to spirit and healing with the help and the wisdom of plants, and that no matter what the white fathers have said, everything is alive and sacred and we are connected, if not by blood then by the stars. Even now those rocks I come from are teaching me that I am tougher and wiser than I think I am. That a hand trembling can become something else, can shapeshift into an ear listening, backwards and forwards, can hear the weeping of blood beneath the skin and under waves; can become steady and awake and disappear when it needs to, into someone else’s words so that a new story can emerge, one that neither of us was expecting, but that needs to be told.
It is night time here, in this place that is not the Caribbean, but all the same, I feel the sky black and full of stars is related to that sky I knew and loved when I sat out on the road in Shirlea, purple bougainvillea and cerasee vines crowding round the poinciana in orange bloom because it was summer. It is exactly fourteen years since I left home. I am sitting on a weathered Adirondack on my front porch, looking out at the darkness. I think about turtles returning from foreign to lay down their eggs in the sand of Caribbean beaches where they were born. As the moon rises, waning now so that it is not quite round, a misshapen gold ball, I wonder about the turtles who do not lay eggs. Who cannot return to their beaches. Who, against nature and against what is expected of them, keep traveling, all of the weight of love and memory and possibility on their backs. And then it dawns on me with a kind of moroseness that I have returned to the place where I was born, but the beaches here are not the beaches I know and love best; my eyes do not tear at the sight of them, though they have given me space to rebirth myself. I think, this homing is not always about a physical return. I think, it does not matter that this place is not that one, because that one is the place that grew me. That taught me who I could be as a white Bahamian woman, if I dared. And like the turtles, I take home with me everywhere I go.
Image credit: Diana McCaulay
Helen Klonaris is a Bahamian writer, teacher, and energy medicine practitioner who lives between Berkeley, California and Nassau, Bahamas. Her early years in the Bahamas were spent working as a human rights activist. She co-founded The Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas, and several literary journals, collectives, and associations, including WomanSpeak, a Journal for Caribbean Women’s Literature and Art and the Bahamas Writers Summer Institute.
Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have been published in numerous journals including The Caribbean Writer, Poui, Small Axe Salon, Proud Flesh, and Sargasso. Her work also appears in anthologies such as The Racial Imaginary: Writers and the Life of the Mind, Haunted Tropics: Caribbean Ghost Stories, and Let’s Tell This Story Properly. She was the International Writer in Residence in the 2017 Small Wonder Short Story Festival. Her books include an anthology, Writing the Walls Down: A Convergence of LGBTQ Voices and If I Had the Wings, her debut collection of short stories published in 2017 by Peepal Tree Press. If I Had the Wings was a finalist for the prestigious 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.
She teaches comparative mythology and religion at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco.www.helenklonarisfiction.com